An asteroid larger than the biggest man-made structure on Earth is barreling its way toward our corner of the solar system, and this one is so big and moving so quickly that it’s been deemed a potential “planet killer,” International Business Times reports. Fortunately, it’s expected to miss Earth by about 3.6 million miles — an exceptionally close call in astronomical terms — when it makes its closest approach on Saturday.
NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) says that Asteroid 163373 (2002 PZ39) has a diameter of about 3,250 feet. By comparison, the tallest man-made structure on Earth, the Burj Khalifa tower in Dubai, is 2,717 feet tall, making this one of the biggest space rocks expected to pass through this part of the skies this month.
And it’s moving at 34,000 miles per hour.
Considering its size and its speed, should this asteroid make contact with the Earth, the results would be catastrophic. The initial blast alone would kill millions; the debris kicked up into the atmosphere from the impact would then shield out the sun’s light, plunging the Earth into a sort of winter that would likely succeed in killing off the rest of us, to say nothing of the damage done to plants and other animals.
The good news is that the rock is expected to pass “safely” by at about 3.6 million miles away when it makes its closest approach, on Saturday, February 15, at 6:05 a.m. ET.
The bad news is twofold. First, though 3.6 million miles away is quite a bit — approximately 14 times the distance between the Earth and the moon — in astronomical terms, such a distance is actually considered quite close. Secondly, both the Earth and the asteroid are locked in orbit around the sun, and those two orbits are in a deadly dance that will put us within range of the asteroid at regular intervals.
In other words, this won’t be the last we hear of 163373 (2002 PZ39).
Meanwhile, Saturday’s asteroid is just one of multiple space rocks that NASA is keeping an eye on, and indeed, will have been one of several close calls to have occurred in the early weeks of 2020.
As The Metro reported in January, at the time NASA had identified five “terrifyingly-huge” asteroids that were expected to streak past the planet between then and February 29. Three have already passed by, and the fourth is expected to make its journey on Saturday. The fifth, the 700-foot-wide 2015 BK509, is expected to make its closest approach on February 29.
“Dozens” of smaller asteroids were also predicted to sneak by during that period.